Are ashes to go a Protestant no-no?

Are ashes to go a Protestant no-no? February 14, 2013

This week’s celebration of Ash Wednesday has prompted several stories built around the theme of “ashes to go” — a recent phenomena of liturgical Protestant church ministers — (I’ve seen reports of Methodist, Episcopal and Lutheran clergy involved) imposing ashes on the foreheads of individuals in public places outside of the confines of worship.

(Yes, “imposing” is the correct verb to describe the act of a cleric daubing an ash covered thumb on the forehead of a penitent. The rite is called the imposition of ashes.)

Theses stories from the Dallas Morning News entitled “Doughnuts, coffee and Ashes to Go?” is typical of the genre, as is the Baltimore Sun’s “Lenten observers take their Ashes to Go,” and the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s “Modern-day Lent: Ashes to Go.” Each conforms to the general pattern of a description of what took place; an explanation of what the ashes symbolize, a quote from someone receiving the ashes and an explanation from one of the clergy explaining why they do it. Some stories go a bit deeper and note that this practice began in St Louis in 2007 and has slowly spread amongst mainline churches.

What I have not seen in this year’s crop (though I have not made an exhaustive search of today’s newspapers) is a contrary voice saying this practice is improper. Happy voices predominate and no hard questions are asked.

Compare these stories to Cathy Lynn Grossman’s 2012 piece entitled “For some, ashes in a flash for Lent”. While it includes the elements of the stories cited above, the USA Today story also asks a spokesman for the Catholic Church what they think of the idea.

Catholic priests won’t be dishing out ashes at bus stops. The Catholic Church teaches ashes should be received within a church, during a service with Scripture, prayer and calls for repentance, says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

USA Today also asked the Episcopal priest who began “ashes to go” in 2007 what her theological reasons were for taking the imposition of ashes outside of the church building.

The Rev. Emily Mellott of Calvary Church in Lombard, Ill., and author of, describes the simple sign as a profound experience. “The ashes are an invitation, opening the door for us to the practices of Lent, a first step, a reminder of our mortality and God’s creative power,” says Mellott, who plans to stand at a commuter train stop today. “We take that invitation and that core truth out into places where people really need that. People who come to church already get the forgiveness thing.”

Anyone can accept the ashes, although non-Christians tend not to seek them. If they do, Mellott says, “we view it as an act of evangelism, and we make it clear this is a part of the Christian tradition.”

By seeking contrary voices and offering a theological explanation, USA Today wins best in show for the ashes to go stories.

I should wrap the story up at this point. I’ve identified why one particular story works best and highlighted the religion ghosts in others.

However, I am going to break the fourth wall in GetReligion and offer my own views on this point. This will not come as a surprise to those who comment that every story I post displays my partisan views — but at GR we seek not to speak to the issues in the story but the journalism.

But I cannot help me self on this one, as I am a working Episcopal priest as well as a journalist, and I presided over an Ash Wednesday service yesterday.

I think it is a terrible idea to separate the penitential rite that proceeds the imposition of ashes. The ashes are not a sacrament that exist independently of the worship service — they are not akin to the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition ashes are sacramentals, (as is the Brown Scapular, Miraculous Medal and Holy Water), which the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1670) states:

do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.

I do not presume to speak for all Protestants, but can say with some confidence that the Church of England and its sister churches has no common doctrine of sacramentals, and rejected the doctrine that underlay these devotional practices.

Why liberal mainline Protestants would take up the belief in sacramentals for Ash Wednesday escapes me. Offering the outward show of contrition that the ashes signify as an evangelism tool makes no theological sense to me either. The Gospel reading found in the Revised Common Lectionary used by most liturgical Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday comes from Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and states in part:

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

… “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

What is the imposition of ashes in a public place that allows the busy commuter to show the world his piety on Ash Wednesday other than the practicing of piety before others “in order to be seen by them”?

I will grant you that my experiences or views should not be the norm against which others should measure their churchmanship, (though I must say I swing a mean incense pot and I do the best Anglican plain chant south of Disney World) but the arguments put forth in support of this practice I find unpersuasive. There is a real debate out there on this issue and, needless to say, journalists are welcome to cover it. This would only make the story deeper and more interesting.

N.b., if you are offended by my excursus into naked partisanship, write to the editor to complain. Blame my colleagues at GetReligion.They gave me the short straw.

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29 responses to “Are ashes to go a Protestant no-no?”

  1. Dear Fr George,
    thank you for yet another good post.

    Tmatt has been Orthodox longer than I, so you might check in with him about precise wording etc., but Orthodoxy does not have “sacramentals” the same way Catholics do. And we don’t have any imposition of ashes at all.

    • Yes, you are correct. The Eastern Orthodox do not have the imposition of ashes. I believe the Western Orthodox churches do — I was thinking of the Antiochian Orthodox Church Archdiocese in America when I wrote the post. I should have omitted mention of the Orthodox from the article.

      • As a Western Rite Antiochian Orthodox Christian, I can confirm we do have the imposition of ashes.

      • More to the point, it is the Byzantine Rite that does not include imposition of ashes. Other ‘Eastern’ rites, notably the Maronite Rite, do observe imposition of ashes at the beginning of Lent. For the Maronites, it is observed on Monday before Ash Wednesday (that is, on the Monday after the final Sunday before the start of Lent) and is appropriately called Ash Monday.

  2. If you can’t speak for all Protestants, then don’t. You find the practice troublesome from your own Anglican perspective, but Methodists at least (of which I am not one) have ample traditional history of doing churchy things in public places. And perhaps not coincidentally, Anglicans disapproved of that too.

    If its the lack of confession that bothers you, and not the public space versus church building as such, why not say that? A confessional component is not ruled out by a public setting. It seems to me to be inherent to the practice, even just a minimal rite of saying “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

    That said, you are right that hearing from a contrasting voice makes a better story.

    • No Travis I did not claim to speak for all Protestants. I spoke for myself only and underscored this point. The points I sought to raise was that this practice lacked theological, Scriptural and liturgical integrity in my view.

    • “but Methodists at least (of which I am not one) have ample traditional history of doing churchy things in public places”

      Alas, we no longer do.

  3. You seem to miss the major point Jesus made in the Gospel reading. He was not criticizing any particular religious action. He was warning about ego-driven MOTIVATION..Note carefully the actual words:”IN ORDER TO to be seen… “…and…”SO THAT THEY MAY be seen..”
    Indeed, the motivation of Catholics– and other Christians–in having ashes imposed is to remind onesself–and others that “you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” And Lent is the time set aside in the Church calendar to encourage us to be prepared for that day when we shall become dust and that our hope in the end is the Resurrection.
    In a way it is akin to why many medieval monasteries had a skull or two in prominent places as “Memento Mori” –that is reminders of death. In fact, the noted writer Muriel Spark wrote a very interesting novel with that title: “Memento Mori.” It is a novel Tennessee Williams called: “chillingly brilliant.”

    • I disagree with the conclusion you offer in your first paragraph, but agree with the remainder of the post. I am not sure where the disconnect lies.

      However, let us not get too far afield from the journalism — and keep the discussion of my ideas as a subordinate subject to the principle point raised at the top of the story.

  4. I just want to know how the guy on the video got a delicate little cross on his forehead.

    Giant smudgy cross requires luck and skill. More often, you just get a big ash smudge spot. So what’s the deal? Stencil?

  5. “People who come to church already get the forgiveness thing.”

    What is that all about? Ashes at the beginning of Lent aren’t about forgiveness.

    • I think she said “the forgiveness thing” to mean “they understand they need forgiveness,” not that they have already received forgiveness. Adding “thing” to a word is another way of saying “concept.”

  6. “I think it is a terrible idea to separate the penitential rite that proceeds the imposition of ashes. The ashes are not a sacrament that exist independently of the worship service — they are not akin to the bread and wine of the Eucharist.”
    And you wouldn’t be going around the streets handing out the Eucharist either.
    To me this seems to be another confusion between evangelism – meant to bring the gospel to people – and, broadly speaking, things Christians do in churches – meant to strengthen and nurture an already existing relationship.

  7. I am Catholic and would and did get to Ash Wednesday service at 7:30 pm. But also received ashes from a Methodist minister In a white robe at 6:45 am. I wanted to get ashes and not risk missing the evening service. Ashes are a sign of the temporary nature of life here. They remind us of the life we were born to in Baptism. They are also a great sign of Christian unity. As the Body of Christ is one, so His Church is one. God bless those who witness the faith in Jesus Christ in Lent.

  8. It’s clear that Protestants are free to do pretty much whatever they want to and do not need anyone’s permission.

    It’s also clear that this is an interesting story and worthy of coverage. The doctrine of this is fascinating — symbols of repentance without the repentance.

    The issue here is whether the Catholic teachings and traditions — the origins of Ash Wednesday and its meaning — play any role in this. The answer, clearly, is yes. Catholicism is what people think of when they think of Lent and Ash Wednesday.

  9. My local Episcopalian priest was out in her community doing Ashes To Go. While it might be true that classical Anglicanism doesn’t have this same concept of sacramentals, I think one has to realize that many parishes have a substantial percentage of former Catholics in them. Especially in places like Chicagoland where Catholicism has been the predominate religion. I think this changes the sensus fidelium in such places to be a more catholic way of viewing things. The ashes are imposed at the same times words are said that remind one of one’s mortality. Surely not a bad thing.

    And unlike the hose thing, jokingly (I hope) suggested above, everyone who gets the ashes volunteers for it. There is no imposing to the imposing.

  10. I can’t comment on Protestant or Orthodox liturgy – the ashes ought to be blessed at Mass, yes, but in the Traditional Latin Rite there is no “penitential liturgy”, the blessing and imposition precedes the Mass and like any sacramental e.g. Epiphany chalk/water once blessed can be received/employed at any time during the appropriate season. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation and being midweek many of the Faithful needs must work to sustain themselves and the Church… Is it so bad for the Church to go out and minister to them where they are?!

    As for the admonitions against “public” displays of fasting and abstinence, I did actually inform folk (and had a handkerchief at the ready) that it was quite consonant with the Gospel to wipe the ashes off afterwards…. And whilst imposing the ashes, I did include the word “joyful” in blessing their Lenten observance!

    What I didn’t do is contact the local media about it, I simply went out after Mass with a parishioner to assist in the distribution of Prayer Cards, to the local shopping centre at lunchtime and stood in the cold with a little sign, imposing ashes on over fifty individuals, blessed two babies and chatted to over one hundred people about the meaning of Ash Wednesday, Lent and the Christian life.

    I note from the Gospels that Jesus didn’t constrain Himself to preaching or praying only in the Synagogue nor talking only to the righteous…

    • Beautifully said, and well done. I don’t agree with the article, mostly because it is not just the inside of the church which contains and proclaims the kingship of Christ. Out on the streets is where everyone-businessman, single mother, teenager, homeless, drug addict, pastor, cashier, college student-is equal and has no place over one another. Doing the “Ashes On The Go” is a proclamation that Christ is king, savior, and present in every part of life, to every person, not just in church during service. Who knows how many people, who never would have stepped into church, have begun to contemplate the meaning and role of repentance, redemption, and forgiveness? The imposition of ashes is not something instituted by Christ or the Apostles; it is a beautiful ritual developed in our shared catholic history that can evolve and be adapted to culture without insulting the Church, or at least that’s my opinion.

  11. I sang at our Catholic Ash Wednesday Mass the other night and there was no penitential service connected with it. Have the Anglicans come up with a new kind of service to go with the ashes that involves forgiveness of sins or something like that?

    • The traditional Episcopal Ash Wednesday service (starting on page 264 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer) includes penitence and forgiveness.

    • The receiving of the ashes is itself a penitential act in Catholic liturgy, at Ash Wednesday Masses the Penitential Act is supposed to be omitted since the receiving of ashes is penitential. We also recite Psalm 51, one of the penitential psalms, the readings also emphasize sincere conversion through real penance.

  12. Fr. George:
    You are not alone. There is another Patheos contributor who shares your opinions.

    What struck me this Lent was how many offerings there were of ways to “repent” without actually dealing with ones own need to repent. Fasting from plastic bags or trying to have a carbon footprint of zero (which is not possible even if one stops breathing) are not ways to confront our own failure to nurture the image of God with which we are created. That is what Lent is about. When we distribute ashes on the street we make grace and the gift of Christ cheap. I cannot help but think that saints of the church, like Bonhoeffer, would be appalled at how we have failed to call people to seek the glory for which they were created.

  13. I haven’t been to NYC on Ash Wednesday for years, but, from the time I was 16 until I left the city, Catholics on their way to work could always line up in the lower concourse to receive their ashes.

    On a second note, one of the things my daughter loved about Ash Wednesday was that you could easily discover which of the eligible young men were Catholic. I guess now that is a thing of the past.